Ancient Eastern Crossroads of Apamea Syria

The Cardo Maximus of Apamea
The Cardo Maximus of Apamea

Driving up to Apamea after visiting the ruins of the other great cities of the area Al Basa and Sejilla while I was staying in Hama, Syria.  This city was the center of it all at one point in time.  The former village of Pharnake was renamed Apamea by the newly appointed and former Roman general to Alexander I king Selecukos Nikator I ‘s whose princess and wife was named Apama in 300 B.C.  It was just another recent addition to the already vast and growing Roman Empire.  The area flourished and it was home to as many as 500K occupants in the city by the 1st century.  It became the merchant center of the area for the Romans since it was easy to defend geographically, it was in close proximity to the still bustling port city of Latakia and it was at the eastern crossroads for commerce.

The city continued to be a valuable asset to the Roman empire through the centuries.  Roman Emperor Claudius continued his support from Rome even after a disastrous earthquake hit on December 13 115.  The city was rebuilt and it’s prosperity continued.

What remains today to see

There’s still a lot standing here today considering how long it’s been since it was settled and how many earthquakes the area has experienced throughout those centuries.  The structures that still standing tall today where mostly built-in the 6th century A.D. This was after the Byzantines again took back the city from the Persians after a failed attempt of Justinian the Great‘s try to regain Western regions the empire had lost.  The battles between the Romans, Persians and Arabs left the city buried to the ground in 628 AD.  The Byzantines only occupied it for 6 years prior to then.  The city was taken back after a many bold military campaigns led by Heraclius in his bid to successfully drive the Persians out of Asia Minor.  The Arabs came along eight years later and defeated the Romans in the Battle of Yarmouk.  Heraclius didn’t count on the Muslim Arabs pushing him and his brother Theodore out after this final bloody in 636.  The Byzantines were pretty much done for after this bloody battle.  The tug of war had finally ended, the Persians won but the city never again regained its grandeur it had once enjoyed under the Byzantines.

One of the many lizards who still call Apamea home
One of the many lizards who still call Apamea home

What a visitor sees in Apamea today is a small traces of a once great city mostly dominated by the Byzantines.   Two major earthquakes struck back in 1157  and 1170 A.D. and have left the city to the ruin it is today.  The city now consists of smaller and more crumbled structures as well as many tall and noble fluted columns, frescoes inside the museum and entry ways along the main Cardo Maximus.

A visitor can easily imagine what Apamea once looked like because there are many structures still standing tall.  There hasn’t been any major building in the area so even though it’s quiet there today you can still look across the valley and see why this beautiful place was always being fought over.

Orontes Valley Ancient Apamea Syria
Orontes Valley Ancient Apamea Syria

How to get there and when to go

Easiest way to get to Apamea is by hiring a car from Hama and include some other sites like Al Basa and Sejilla and the Beehives.  I suggest an early start not only because it takes some time to get from one to the next but they do close around sunset.  This particular day was beautiful and clear and we started out with the beehives, moved on to the dead cities of Al Basa and Sejilla (we must made it before the one man security force decided to close around 3pm) and got here at Apamea around 5:00pm.  A perfect time in June for pictures in terms of lighting and the fact that we pretty much had it to ourselves.

The Howls of the Rebel River in Hama Syria

The highlight of the city of Hama is by no doubt the norias or “wheels of pots”.  Seventeen now remain standing and occasionally running above the Nahr al-Assi, aka Rebel River.   Many know it as being the Orontes River.  It’s presently the job of the office of Antiquities in Hama to make sure that these remaining wheels can still function as they did 1000-years-ago and remain aesthetically pleasing drawing in tourists and travelers.   Authors Needham and Ronan described them as “the most splendid norias ever constructed.” and they are right to some degree.

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According to author Joseph Needham, the Noria are believed to have been first constructed in India around 350 B.C.  The technology later spread east to China and then west to the Mediterranean Region.  What was unique about Norias is that they are powered only by flowing water .   Cows, camels, wind, steam or even people are unnecessary.   Unfortunately, the water to be needs to high enough to work properly. The climate in Hama allows them to work around 5 months out of  the year.  The use of dams and the luck of a rainy spring keeps the creaking wheels spinning.

The norias are thought to have been constructed in Hama during the Byzantine era but the jury is still out on whether it was earlier.  It is known that their numbers peaked to around 30 during the Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1510). The Turkish governor ordered the restoration of the Roman built water wheels after he conquered the area.  They made the 200-year-old wheels bigger and added more along the river.  The norias brought water to its inhabitants and their farms.  The crop yields skyrocketed, trade increased and it’s people grew rich.  The Orontes Valley still remains Syria’s agricultural heartland.
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